The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Gooving at the Golden Triangle - Chiang Rai

After hours of driving through Bangkoks spaghetti junction highways, passing endless sandbags and outer streets starting to flood, we finally made it to the Airport only to find that the flight was delayed for hours due to a “broken” runway. First we were told accident on runway… this didn’t quell the pre-flight nerves at all, but was soon changed to ‘broken’ .  Thankfully the plane wasn’t broken and after a smooth flight we arrived at our destination, Chiang Rai just prior to midnight and found ourselves in the throws of a full moon party of sorts. 

A party with hundreds of monks. A monk rave! There was plenty of light strobing, groovy music and munchies on offer but forget downing poppers to alter the mind, this party was about us popping goodies into monks begging bowls  in an attempt to alter our Karma. 

The main street of Chiang Rai was filled with joyous people carrying tables, trays and bags of edible goodies. We too filled up a bag of yummy delights and joined the crowds lining the street just below the clock tower waiting for the monks.  (The clock tower of Chiang Rai is stunning, a work of art given to the city by a very generous  Thai Artist and Sculptor – Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat.)   
At the stroke of midnight, music filled the air and the glittering gold tower put on a light show, changing from gold to royal blue, purple, green, red and a beautiful blend of coral shades.  As this happen the night sky filled with hundreds of small birds and a gasp went up from the crowd.  Everyone started clapping and oohing and arhing as the birds, swallows I think, flew around the clock tower, around the buildings and then settled onto the power lines above us.  It was as if they too were waiting for the arrival of the monks.  Throughout all this, candles carried in floating lanterns drifted up into the sky – it was a beautiful sight.  One of the floating lanterns became caught in the power lines sending up sparks, disturbing the birds.  As electrical sparks showered down…and not very far from us… the birds again flew around the tower then resettled along the lines. A procession started, beautiful girls in traditional costumes followed by a large bell being pulled and pushed on a cart by men in stunning outfits. 
As soon as they passed, the crowds moved in and along came the Monks.  It became like a mosh pit, everyone trying to get close to the monks to put food into their begging bowls, when the bowls filled (and it didn’t take long at all) they were emptied into a sack, and when the sacks filled they were passed back to a ute.  Needless to say, there were loads of sacks and quite a few utes.  We had to be very careful not to touch the monks whilst putting the offerings into the bowl, which proved to be hard as the monks continued walking whilst this was being done.
Not to mention the crowd was pulsatesating;  pushing and surging forward to get closer to the Monks.  And you just didn’t put the offering into the bowl , there was a small ritual that had to be carried out. Nothing too complicated, but still trying to remember it and not touch the monk, whilst being shoved was quite disconcerting , yet it was a very enjoyable experience.   We were taken ‘under wing’ by four Chiang Rai uni students who delighted in telling us about this celebration.  It happens only once a year on the Wednesday full moon and is the End of Buddhist Lent.  I found this fascinating as I never knew Buddhists had Lent and I felt even more blessed for being able to participate in this holy festival.  The celebration went into the early hours and we noticed just after the senior monks passed the hundreds of birds sitting along the electrical lines, rose into the air and flew away – have no idea where they went.
The 1989 LP states that Chiang Rai is of “no real interest – just a stepping stone”  on the way to the Golden Triangle and I think it’s thanks to this play down twenty years ago that the town has blossomed into a beautiful tranquil oasis in the north. Today, Chiang Rai is a spotlessly clean, modern town with all the old world charms and bustle.  Peddle rickshaws trundle through the leafy streets, overhead brightly coloured lanterns swing in the breeze and the central market is the place to be wether it’s four o’clock in the morning when the hill tribe women come into town in their traditional dress to sell their wares or in late afternoon when workers line the hawkers stalls for delicacies such as big curly noodle sausages, deep fried chicken (this stall was lined 20deep) and stuffed BBQ salted fish.  For us, Chiang Rai was a mine of interesting sites and discoveries.

First on the list was the surreal white temple – Wat Rong Khun – designed by Ajarn (clock tower  artist) and still in the process of being built - so far 12years and counting, a quote from the artist himself (who is quite young) is that he anticipates this temple’s completion will “maybe in 60 - 90 years after my death” .  On the morning we arrived, the sky was a brilliant blue and the temple a mirror ball– sunglasses were a necessary health requirement as thousands upon thousands upon tens of thousands of small mirrors attached to the temple and its periphery buildings  glinted and glittered and shone blindingly in the sunshine.

This was a temple of intense artistic freedom, a building up there with the likes of those designed by Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain and along the fantastical surrealism lines of Dali .  A temple of devotion, complete with monastery, monks and deep reverence,  I found myself at first glance wondering if the artist is having a ‘lend’ of the devotees.  At the entrance sits a space alien in body armour buried up to his waist, further along a shrine; but forget the standard god or Buddha, instead in reverence place is a skull and full bottle of whisky.  As we delve deeper into the temple we held spellbound by the paintings depicted on the walls – Keanu Reeves in Matrix form, the blue men of Avatar, Star Wars, Spider man and the Transformers spread across the inner walls in larger than life forms.   At the very front of the temple’s sanctum is statues of the Buddha (and a very realistic wax figure of a monk) but the other three walls are a psychedelic  kaleidoscope of sci-fi and movie scenes. For the sci-fi aficionados, this would be their nirvana! 
The more we wander, the more bizarre the Wat becomes, George Bush rides rockets with Osama and the heads of world leaders hang from trees, there’s a ‘lake’ of doomed souls in hell, the hands stretching to the sky, their anguished faces screaming – all in grey – and there on one hand, a lone fingernail in brilliant red, the only scrap of colour. 

And then we discover the toilet block – gold, shimmering and magnificent, in fact it is stated to be “the most beautiful toilet block in the world”.  Ajarn is an incredibly generous artist who not only gave his city a beautiful clock but in using his own funds to build this incredible temple,  is giving to his county, Thailand, a most precious gift that will become an architectural wonder of the world. 

I was excited to be in the region of the Golden Triangle, famous in the past for opium poppy growing and drug lords, back then it was not a place for the traveller to get lost in or wander off the beaten track lest you never returned. Today the poppy fields are gone and the hill tribes who cultivated the opium are encouraged to engage in other activities, yet two days prior to us arriving in Chiang Rai, the Bangkok News carried a story in which a Chinese boat was hijacked in the area, the thirteen crew members killed and after the recapture of the boat, an enormous load of drugs was recovered.  The badlands of the Golden Triangle might be in the past, but the area was still being used as a runners route.   With this news story fresh in our minds, we hire a car for two days and took to the hills flanking the Laos/Myanmar/Thai boarder. 
We wind our way up the dense jungle mountains to Mae Fa Luang where we find ourselves at a beautiful Swiss inspired chalet and having to don matching blue stone washed Thai fishing pants (oh so not fashionable!) and spend hours meandering through stunning gardens – but not a poppy in sight.  Further into the hills, the roads become narrower and evidence of fresh landslips reveals the hardships of living in such an area, a number houses and thatched huts lay scattered down the mountain side.  Along the way we pass small hill tribe villages and tribesman in traditional outfits – colourful and ornate, I’m particularly taken with the Akha woman and their spectacular headdress. Pompoms, bells and silver coins sewn on black cloth and pile high upon their heads, beads, intricate embroidery, shells and silver cut-outs of animals emblazon across their tunics and leggings.  Up close, their smiles are blood red from the beetle nut they chew. 
At Doi Mae Salong we go in search of the Akha tea-pickers but as it’s nearing the afternoon we have missed them, instead we indulge in a tea-tasting ceremony and later stagger out with boxes of fragrant teas which I’ll probably never get round to drinking.   

Doi Mae Salong - off limits to outsiders until the mid 1990’s - is the area where a Chinese division defected to.  Known as the “Lost Army” they sort asylum in Thailand and in return for their refuge, fought for Thailand against any communist insurgency or infiltration.  The village has a very Chinese feel to it –  cherry trees line the roads (apparently during blossom time this is one of the most beautiful places in all of Thailand), bight red lanterns hang from noodle shops and tea shops, enormous Chinese style buddhas loom large above small village houses, chinese writing decks the shops and street signs, and you can hear the Mandarin language being spoken. Pride of place is the Chinese Martyr’s Memorial, a beautiful shrine and museum complex that looks almost out of sorts next to the small dusty village of thatched palm leafed bamboo huts and low concrete box houses.  We stop at a hill tribe market, I’m keen to pick up some traditional fabric however  I find  the Akha women’s selling techniques intense and aggressive and become overwhelmed by the demands.
Big M wanders around the stalls taking photos and as he tries to photograph an elderly Akha woman in full costume, she lets him know of her displeasure of being ‘shot’ – promptly giving him the two finger salute and a mouthful of words.
(Of course it’s not until later we realise how insensitive we’ve been – both of us. The Akha follow a religion based of animistic beliefs steeped in superstition and by taking photographs of elderly tribespeople  there is a belief this could bring on a sickness or death.  Even later, we’re told by a tourguide that such a belief could have been overcome by offering to pay her  for her photograph.
As for the hard sell, the Akha are the most impoverished of the hill tribes and at the moment it is the ‘low season’ for this area, thus fewer tourist means less money.)

Descending from the 6000ft mountain ridge, we make our way the boarder of Myanmar and Thailand, a dusty, bustling township called Mai Sae and wander the higgly-piggly twisting corridors of the boarder markets.  Absolutely everything is sold in these markets and we are stunned to find so much ‘westernised’ items on offer.  This is a town at the very northern tip of Thailand (almost in the middle of no-where) and bordering an incredibly poor country yet one can buy glittering gold evening bags, remote controlled helicopters (Big M was trying to figure out how he could get one home),  gun sights and flick knives sit side by side of children’s toys and sequined ball gowns that would delight any ‘les girls’ dancer.

 Then we arrive at our ultimate goal – the Golden Triangle itself.  The precise spot where the waters of the Mekong River (Mae Khong) and the Ruak River blend together in a mass of rapids, swirlpools and rips.  The water surges and flows at a fast pace and small longboats fuelled by gas BBQ cylinders sitting behind the bench seats bounce and crash along its surface.  From its apex we can see clearly see the boarders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand come together. Looking into Laos we view huge ornate palaces with gold crowns and domes flanking the river.  A huge neat concrete wall runs along the rivers edging giving it the impression of grandeur, neatness and order.  Across from it is Myanmar…. Burma ….  intriguing, mysterious, beckoning…. I can’t wait to enter it, but we don’t succumb to the offers of ‘day passes’ into her yet.

Myanmar entry visa’s are burning a hole in our passports, but we don’t dare risk their precious 27day allowance for a couple of hours thrill.  From where we stand we can see gold pagodas glinting in the sunlight. 

Around us the site of the Golden Triangle is like a huge theme park.  An enormous gold Buddha sits upon a colourful metal ship. Statues of elephants, teapots and various religious (and non religious) icons deck the area.  Amongst it all wander the  tourists and heavily  armed guards (of which one came up and offered to take our photo against the triangle marker) and saffron robed monks who buy wind-chimes and bird statues…. these sit next to carved opium pipes and opium pillows.  It all has a very surreal feeling to it.
When the sun settles on Chiang Rai the disco lights come out and just as spectacular as the clock tower‘s light and music show on our first night, we found ourselves dazzled by disco-ing utes driving along the highway, belting out their tunes and blinking lights in time. And once again it’s almost a requirement to don the sunglasses when watching these moving nightclubs, they are so bright they can be seen for miles. 
On our last night in this northern town we wandered down to the street market and found ourselves swept up into a boisterous maypole-style line-dancing  session.  On stage a boot scoot’n, ten-gallon hat wearing Thai band belts out pop music whilst hoards of dancers shimmied, heel kicked and jived around a pole draped in streamers. More and more scurry onto the dance floor, laughing clapping and stomping with absolute joy.  Big M gave me the’ come-on’ to join in, “No body knows us” he yells as he plunges into the throng. As I watch him embrace the moment of total inhibition freedom, I think “Why not!”  And thus we end our Chiang Rai rave on a golden high.   
More Pics of Chiang Rai
Big M taken under wing by Thai Students
The crowd waiting for the monks

Shopping for Thai Silk
Love the Hill Tribe handicrafts

The beauty that is the White Temple

More of the White Temple

Monks shopping at the Golden Triangle - buying bird statues
Fisher woman at Golden Triangle

Doi Mae Salong